Nasa shows first photo of distant world from New Horizons probe

Listen to New Horizons, Brian May's first solo single in 20 years

The NASA scientists announced this on Monday that the asteroid looked like that of a snowman. Having formed 4.5 billion years ago, when the solar system taking shape, it is also the most primitive object seen up close like this.

"We should think of New Horizons as a time machine", said Jeff Moore, the mission's lead geology and geophysics scientist.

Seeing MU69, then, is like peering into the solar system's past.

Stern and other team members discussed early findings on Wednesday from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., where the spacecraft was designed and built and also is operated.

Principal Investigator Alan Stern paid tribute to the skill of his team in acquiring the image as New Horizons flew past the object at 3500km at closest approach. Altogether, it will take almost two years for all of New Horizons' data to reach Earth. The first batch that scientists revealed Wednesday was only a taste, but it was a tantalizing one, they said.

NASA said it named the larger portion Ultima and the smaller section Thule. Consequently, scientists suspect that these ancient objects have been preserved in relatively pristine condition since the beginnings of the still-forming solar system, some 4 billion years ago.

"The term "Ultima Thule" was many centuries old ... and is a wonderful name for exploration".

Another possibility is Ultima could be two objects orbiting each other, researchers said. The image on the right has a far higher spatial resolution. The mission team is now calling the larger one "Ultima" and the smaller one "Thule".

In an animation created by NASA using three of the images we can see the oblong shape of Ultima Thule, which NASA describes as looking like a bowling pin. Ultima Thule rotates about once every 15 hours, the scientists determined. "If you had a collision with another auto at those speeds, you may not even bother to fill out the insurance forms", he said. "This really puts the nail in the coffin now", Stern said. To astronomers' surprise, images from the New Year's Day flyby reveal that Ultima Thule is a "contact binary", which means it consists of two connected spheres that were previously separated but now joined together.

NASA launched New Horizons in 2006 when Pluto was still considered a planet.

This is expected that astronomical history has to record many wonders this year.

Many of us know that the most distant of the known planets in the solar system was the tiny world we called planet Pluto.

The US probe's images acquired as it approached Ultima hinted at the possibility of a double body, but the first detailed picture confirms it. We'll forgive them for not coming up with anything more creative since their minds are likely blown by the sight of planetary formation caught in the act, so to speak.

"I didn't imagine that it could happen", May said.

He added: "It is going to revolutionise our knowledge of planetary science".

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